Monthly Archives: September 2006

For fox’s sake, Kate, give it up …

Malcolm cannot remember in which year Harold Wilson was chairman of the Labour Party (in those days the chair rotated round the members of the National Executive), but it probably was 1959. That year, on some obscure premise, James Connolly‘s Starry Plough flag was paraded through the Conference arena.

Then, as now, there were occasional rumblings about the Labour Party organising in Northern Ireland. It was not something to be taken too seriously then or now.

In those days, it was argued that there was a Labour Party in Northern Ireland (NILP). NILP never made any great shift outside of Belfast, but it had its moments. It actually elected an MP to Westminster in 1943, when its long-term leader, Jack Beattie, was returned for West Belfast. Harry Midgley, the Stormont Minister of Education in the 1950s, on his long march from Marxist-Leninism to the Ulster Unionism, had been in and out of NILP. In Malcolm’s Dublin days, the Leader of NILP was Tom Boyd.

Today, the argument is that the SDLP is a fellow with the Labour Party in the Socialist International, so has bragging rights in the Six Counties. A rump of NILP campaigned for the Union in the 1973 Referendum, and self-evidently did not assimilate into the SDLP. Out of this came a group calling itself Labour ’87, pushing for the British Party to organise in the North. The name of NILP is, apparently, still registered with the Electoral Commission. The last known sigh was in 2003, after Andy McGivern threatened to use the Human Rights Act, and the British Labour Party quietly dropped its ban on membership in the Six Counties. All searches for the Labour Party in Northern Ireland seem to bring one back to Athol Books (which operates from post boxes) and the Irish Political Review.

Which brings us back to Kate Hoey, for Catharine Letitia remains one of the few boosters for the daft idea of British Labour Party organisation in Northern Ireland. She is as out-of-order on this as she is on killing-foxes-for-kicks.

First, there are the sheer pragmatics to be considered. Politics in the six counties are riven on sectarian lines: something that will long outlast Malcolm and his generation. To put the issue bluntly, does Labour in the UK (or, hypothetically, in the UK & NI) accept the border as immutable? If so, it would stand in the North as a Unionist Party. If not, it is in competition with the SDLP and Sinn Fein. The Alliance Party (i.e. middle-class Lib Dems in green-and-orange drag) tried to find space between the two sides: on recent outings, it has taken 4-5% of the vote.

Second, who finances this quixotic gesture? Malcolm expects a quick shuffling of feet, but not of wallets, on that one. With no organisation on the ground, the money would need to come in from London: fat chance, says Malcolm. And, to be credible, Labour would have to fight all 18 constituencies, which means vote-splitting and lost deposits.

Third, what is the use of such a move? If any future Parliamentary majority (for any UK party) depends on support from Northern Irish members, that way madness lies. Without exception, the 18 MPs elected from the six counties are there to extract factional concessions and pork from Westminster: ideology and loyalty are a long way behind. And the more desperate the Parliamentary arithmetic, the higher the price.

Electoral calculations apart, let’s allow principle in for a moment. And let’s admit the inadmissible: that the “new” Unionists are OK-ish on social policy (provided the book of Leviticus is kept out of the equation). That is understandable. The “old” Unionist Party was based on deference: landowners ran the policy and sat in Parliament, while the Orange ranks provided uncomplaining voting fodder. When that cracked, the Democratic and Progressive Unionists (and other pale imitations) emerged. The PUP, of and for the urban working class, though now apparently on the way out, was explicitly left-wing. The DUP, more rural and small-business, is pretty right-wing on most issues, but supports investment in health and education. The policy statements of Reg Empey’s Unionists are encouraging and cohere with those of Labour: free pre-school, “a new, fairer method of academic selection”, action to reduce the brain-drain (and that needs decoding), free personal care for the elderly, an “anti-poverty strategy”, investment in health.

Of course, it could be argued that the forthcoming General Election in the Republic (due before next July) could, just could achieve some tectonic shift. The last poll Malcolm saw (in the Sunday Tribune for 10th September) had Fianna Fail at 37 % (just about comfortable and rising, provided — oops! Mr Taoiseach! — no great fall out), Fine Gael at 26% (coming back from the great melt-down), Labour at 15% (and seemingly going nowhere) and Sinn Fein at just 8% (isn’t it marvellous what a period of peace-and-quiet can do?). If that pattern persists, it’s going to be fun putting a coalition together. However, sweet reason says that, one way or another, Fianna Fail should keep some sort of control. Hard luck, then, Mr Adams: close but no cigar.

So, all in all, a Northern Ireland strategy for Labour is a no-brainer. Don’t. And tell Kate it’s a load of hooey.

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Even Hiaasen couldn’t make it up!

Malcolm waits expectantly for each new instalment of Carl Hiaasen, either on line from the Miami Herald or in the bookshops. In another dimension, the on-going collapse from hubris to nemesis of the Floridan Republicans is worthy of a Socrates.

While Malcolm has been able to laugh with Hiaasen as he depicts a hardly-credible and comic-strip version of squalid shenanigans in southern Florida, it now all seems to be coming to an awful, fascinating reality. First we had the ludicrous senatorial ambition of Katherine Harris (for which see previous bloggings from Malcolm), now we have (former) Representative Mark Foley.

Foley has been in the House of Representatives, for the solid-Republican sixteenth district, since 1994. This district bisects Florida coast-to-coast, from the better end of Palm Beach to the Costa Geriatrica of Port Charlotte (where Foley has his office and nearly a third of the households are 65 or older). It is a district which is traditionally (in more ways than one) Republican (voting 55-45 for Bush in 2004). It is also the archetypal example of over-development and resource-depletion.

Now for Foley. The Boston Phoenix has one of those editorials that Malcolm salivates over, if only for the spleen and venom. It is moderately entitled:

Being gay in the GOP
Congressman Mark Foley: A model of political hypocrisy and personal cowardice.

It continues:

It’s one of those open secrets that’s more open than secret. It first came up during his initial run for Congress in 1994. A right-wing opponent in the GOP primary sent out a mailing saying that Foley was gay. Foley answered the accusation — and in this context, it was an accusation — by telling the media: “I like women.”

This editorial outlines the on-going attempt to “out” Foley, starting a while back by Bob Norman in the New Times, a Broward-Palm Beech alternative weekly. This was picked up by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. It became national news only in the last day or so, when, eventually, republican bosses acted on “explicit” emails sent by Foley to a sixteen-year-old page in the Capitol. And then Foley did a quick, quiet runner, doubtless never to be seen in polite society again. It seems that, behind the scenes, moves have been afoot (from Karl Rove, indeed) to stymie Foley (who also had ambitions for the Senate seat now being sought by Harris).

Which raises two big problems:

  1. What is it with the reactionary Right that they cannot face the obvious on sexuality?
  2. What happens next in the November elections?

The first of these issues goes to the heart of the double-standards of conventional politics: “It’s all right so long as you get away with it. You’re doomed when it becomes public. And then we bury you deep”. This is essentially a “better than thou” attitude. It is not just American. It is not merely the Right. It is not unBritish, even. Malcolm remembers being at the London Labour Party do for the October 1974 General Election. The assembled throng were addressed by Bob Mellish, and Malcolm found himself standing close to Ron Brown, George Brown‘s brother and Shoreditch MP. Ron Brown’s running de haut en bas commentary on Mellish amounted to “give the plebs what is needed to keep them happy”. At the time, Malcolm admits, he was innocent enough to be shocked.

As for the November elections, the Foley affair has some serious implications for the Republicans. The Democrats need 15 seats to regain control of the House. That has seemed quite a long shot (and one which Malcolm has not considered in depth). It is too late to get Foley off the ballot. At the very best, the Republicans will need to run an alternate, a candidate to receive Foley’s “proxy” votes. Along with all the other scandals which have lapped at (mainly) Republican doors: this could be one too many. Hooray! says Malcolm.

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Democrats looking fine?

Malcolm’s US election watch continues. He notes, with some degree of chuffiness, today’s New York Times piece by Robin Toner. Toner, it needs recognising, has been consistently chipper about the Democratic Party’s changes in November.

Six weeks out, he believes that Senator Allen of Virginia looks “newly vulnerable”. In view of Allen being repeatedly wrong-footed in recent weeks (notably on race issues, now also over whether he is prepared to acknowledge his Jewish ancestry), and his Democratic challenger getting the better of the exchanges, that’s recognising the increasingly-obvious. That all is significant because it represents the sixth State on the Democrat’s possible shopping list: the one that might give them a majority in the Senate. Democrats are ahead or challenging in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, according to Toner as well as other columnists. The grit in the sandwich is New Jersey, a traditional Democratic banker looking vulnerable. And, as usual, the Republicans have long pockets, and no qualms about “casting nasturtiums”.

Meanwhile, Chris Cillizza, whose Washington Post politics blog Malcolm has hailed previously (see August 24th), has been getting down and dirty in an Ohio River Ramble. Incidently, the Washington Post has one of the most irritating ads popping up in the margin. Cillizza is due for another summing-up of the national picture, and it’ll be worth the waiting.

Rasmussen is still going 49 Republican to 48 Democrats, with three “toss-ups”. He still has Democratic Bill Nelson at 56-33 over “road-kill” Katherine Harris in Florida (Ho, ho!, says Malcolm).

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Celebrations have been muted …

Judith Keene, Malcolm notices, is reminding us that today is the 70th (not the 60th as her story on the BBC website says) anniversary of the ending of the siege of the Alcazar. This was the decisive defeat of the Republicans in stifling Franco’s revolt. Colonel Jose Moscardo Ituarte’s Falangist rebels, holed up in the ancient fort of Toledo, were relieved after seventy-one days. The Time Magazine accounts are on line, and illustrate just how “unbiased” that organ was.

Keene then proceeds to puff her account of the international volunteers who went to Spain to support Franco. While Keene’s book is useful, it is really little more than a sequence of lectures she has delivered on the topic. It tends to be biographical rather than a full-blown analysis of an extraordinary phenomenon.

Maurice Manning dealt with a smaller aspect, specifically the Irish context, of the nationalist volunteers in a better book, The Blueshirts. This originally appeared as an academic tome by the University of Toronto, some 35 years back, and has been recently re-issued, updated, as a paperback. Manning is swomething of a sympathetic critic of the Blueshirts: he was a Fine Gael TD and a member of Seanad Éireann, and his book deals in some detail with the curious relationship between Fine Gael, Eoin O’Duffy and the National Guard. On the other hand, we may respect Manning’s credentials as a liberal, which are justified by his Presidency of the Irish Human Right Commission.

All of which brings up Malcolm’s bile about O’Duffy. This is the man about whom stories are legion, and are almost-wholly unpleasant. The recent biography by Fearghal McGarry is a “warts-and-all” enlightenment, and is (for the moment at least) the last word. And O’Duffy, puffed, opinionated, vicious, was no Cromwell. Any one not up for McGarry can have a two-minute summary of some of O’Duffy’s follies (though omitting O’Duffy’s sexual proclivities) in a piece by Niall Cunningham on Ciaran Crossey’s site.

O’Duffy, in retrospect, was unpleasant and contemptible, but largely pig-ignorant. There were others around him who could not be excused on that ground. The tendency to fascism and the blatant anti-semitism of Thirties Ireland can never be excused. There were a very sinister clique of political-academics (Michael Tierney and James Hogan, Ernest Blythe, Yeats indeed) and members of the Catholic hierarchy who were deeply stained. If O’Duffy saw himself as Ireland’s Mussolini, others would have welcomed a Salazar. Malcolm would rarely defend Kevin O’Higgins, one of “the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”, but at least he opposed this tendency in Cumann na nGaedhael.

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Running for Congress?

The Democrat candidate for the Illinois 6th District is Tammy Duckworth. Her Republican opponent is Peter Roskam. Roskam has characterised Duckworth’s position on the Iraq mess as “cut and run”. This, of course, is the usual read-out from the Karl Rove songsheet.

Except …

Tammy Duckworth was a helicopter pilot in Iraq. She lost both her legs there.

Laugh? Malcolm nearly cried.

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The last noble cause?

W.H. Auden famously celebrated September 1, 1939, sitting:

… in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

About the same time, another (and more consistent) old Bolshie was finishing off Malcolm’s favourite novel. Howard Spring’s Fame is the Spur is the story of John Hamer Shawcross, born in the back-streets of Ancoats, and rising through the Labour Movement to become a Labour MP, and Cabinet Minister. The story ends with (the now Lord) Shawcross contemplating his new-born grandchild. Shawcross has lived to rue his lifetime’s achievement: his only son estranged and dead, fighting for the Spanish Republic, while the world sinks into the greater conflict of a World War.

Malcolm usually has watering eyes by that point.

The foreshadowing is implicit in the novel’s title, taken from Milton’s Lycidas:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious dayes;
But the fair Guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th’ abhorred shears,
And slits the thin spun life.

Spring subtly starts Shawcross’s story in the streets of back-to-backs that Engels described in 1844. It ends, predictably, in Mayfair. The book is usually seen as a fictional version of the life of Ramsay MacDonald, whose illegitimacy, loss of a loved wife, and indulgence in high society Shawcross shares. It also borrows from the life of Philip Snowden (a Yorkshire constituency, the suffragette connection and the Chancellorship).

And, at this point, many readers (“I wish, I wish,” mutters Malcolm) might expect a standard denunciation of the class-traitors and betrayers of 1931. Nowadays, Malcolm is more generous of spirit. He does without the vitriol and the formulas of pre-processed pseudo-Marxism. These, he feels, were decent men, doing their best, taking the wrong advice, under enormous pressure. In any case, the successes of the Attlee Government were sown in the aftermath of the 1931 catastrophe.

But, back to the plot.

Auden went, briefly, to Spain, in 1937. He made a few broadcasts. He wrote a poem:

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;
They floated over the oceans;
They walked the passes. They came to present their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers…

Later Auden would turn apostate, and delete the poem from his life’s work. But in those lines he had captured the moment, the momentum. When Malcolm was forming his own ideologies, Spain was the legend. International Brigaders were titanic figures who still (in the early 1960s) walked among us. So Malcom read Orwell, and Hemingway, that fat newly-published history by Hugh Thomas, Gerald Brenan and Koestler (naturally, in a dusty Left Book Club edition). That led to John dos Passos, and to The Wall (Sartre’s magnificent short-story) and that led to … and so on. And Malcolm recognised in the Brigaders, like Hamer Shawcross’s son, those well-meaning middle-class lads, like himself, with heavy dialectical chips on their shoulders.

When Malcolm was recently in Dublin, he learned of the death of Mick O’Riordan. It was encountering Mick, Johnny Nolan and (just the once) Peadar O’Donnell that made Malcolm see that Spain was not just effete (if admirable) bourgeois and edgy writers getting their rocks off. These were truly working-class heroes. And Malcolm’s entrée was through his class-mate Séan Edwards, the son of another Brigader, Frank Edwards. The Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War is being celebrated by Ciaran Crossey’s fine site.

One of the focuses of Malcolm’s world, even more than the lecture-room or the library, was New Books in Pearse Street. This was where Johnny Nolan presided. Or in his absence it could be the formidable Mick. Here Malcolm could get his regular fix of Tribune or International Socialism or New Left Review. New Books would sell the political list of Penguin Books, or nationalist song books, or the blue-bound, gold-blocked Moscow Printing House copies of Capital and Lenin, indiscriminately. It always amused Malcolm that such subversion existed cheek-by-jowl with the Special Branch in Pearse Street Gardai station.

And the point of all this? One of the books that Malcolm brought back from Dublin was Bob Doyle’s Brigadista, an Irishman’s Fight against Fascism. Bob is the last Irish Brigadista. His fight was not only in Spain: he had already practised on O’Duffy’s Blueshirts, and went on to tussle with Robert Maxwell. His description of his attempts to get to Spain are worth the entry-fee alone, and lend weight to Auden’s summary. Then, on page 44, out of nowhere dropped a name:

At the beginning of 1937 I was with Alec Digges and others who were working for Spain ..

When Malcolm removed to north London, in the mid-1970s, Malcolm found himself sharing a pub with another Dubliner, Alec Digges. Alec had served with the International Brigade in Spain and then lost a leg on the Normandy beach-head with the Grenadiers. To the end Alec had the ram-rod posture and the bristle moustache of the Guardsman.

And so Malcolm raises a glass to those who had a noble cause: Mick and Johnny; Frank and Alec. These were Milton’s clear spirits who were not seduced by personal fame or glory. In the hostile environment of Ireland of the Bishops, they certainly had to scorn delights, and live laborious dayes, before, during and long after their Spanish excursion. Even so, their tales have been preserved, and are deserving of the telling. We shall not see their like again.

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Stamineus homo

Malcolm is aware that BBC bias is a favourite sport among the blogista. Most of this seeming partiality is little more than carelessness or the result of the pressure of “rolling news”. Provided both sides are bashing the beeb for bias, it must be doing something right.

Today was a case in point. The Cherie Blair “That’s a lie!” theme was being rehearsed as the only balance to Gordon Brown’s deliberate and effective oration. Someone had to spoil the occasion. That was, on the morning shift, delegated to Jon Sopel.

Here’s the scenario: a young lady going by the name “Carolin Lotter”, so prominent that, apparently, she does not merit a single hit on google, is variously a “producer” or a “reporter” with Bloomberg. She seems, on this occasion, to be in the highly-responsible rôle of minding a display stand while the more important players were committed to the main event. She claims to have overheard a chance remark. Ms Lotter (who is not even allowed sole credit for her story on the Bloomberg site) is backed up by “a telephone interview” with an Essex University academic. Which begs the question: was this “lecturer in government” also present or was he called in at long distance to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative?

Anyway, back to Sopel (who should know better). He asks an interviewee why should Lotter not be telling the truth? Note the implications of that:

  • someone must be fibbing, but it cannot possibly be a fellow journo;
  • an unknown on the make, trying to carve a career in the trade of news-chatter, has no motive for “puffing” a story;
  • Bloomberg are rock-solid reputable, because they are involved in “finance” (“Whoopy-doo!”, says Malcolm);
  • all this has some great, world-shattering significance;
  • that this is part of a binary, antinomial world where there can be no half-way between “truth” and “lie”. Where does an honest “mistake” or “mishearing” fit in such a world?

Malcolm would have just two comments to make to Sopel and his editor:

  • bollocks;
  • get a grip.

O, and Malcolm would like you to know that the latin headline means “man of straw”.

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Not so gay

Here’s The Age of Australia:

HE IS silver-haired, handsome and hugely popular. And Klaus Wowereit may well be on his way to becoming the world’s first gay leader.

Wowi, as his supporters know him, has been voted in for a second term as the left-wing Mayor of Berlin. He is also being groomed by his Social Democratic Party as its nomination for the chancellorship at the next general election in less than four years.

“First gay leader”: Malcolm is wondering how they excluded William Rufus, Edward II, and James VI & I (and that’s just the British cohort).

By the way, try googling “homosexual kings” and see how obsessed The Age is about the topic.

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The class ceiling

Malcolm hears the CBI’s fretting about the minimum wage. Heaven help us: it’s going up to £5.35 an hour next week! Begging to be let off the hook of future increases,

the CBI said that the minimum wage would have risen by 27% since 2002 – faster than average wage growth of 18%.

Rising energy costs, lower 2007 growth forecasts and the cost of employment regulation meant firms could not cope with further heavy minimum wage rises, it added.

Malcolm notices one illogicality there: the cost of heating, cooking and lighting do not impact on the lower wage-earners, only on business.

The rest of the CBI’s statement scarcely transcends this level of self-serving special-pleading. Their bleats include:

  1. lower-waged competition overseas;
  2. being undercut by a minority of unscrupulous employers who take workers on the black market to avoid paying the minimum wage; and
  3. uncertain global economic outlook.

Ho hum. Let’s take those one at a time.
1. Most of the low-paid jobs are in service industries (retail, catering and cleaning, for example). Nice to see how they could be outsourced to the Philippines.
2. The CBI is the UK’s leading business organisation, speaking for some 240,00 businesses that together employ around a third of the private sector workforce.
If its members are so omnipresent, they must know who is doing the dirty. So, why does the CBI not shop the rogue employers?
3. The CBI does not read its own research. A week ago, the CBI demolished its own thesis about uncertain global economic outlook with a news-release:

GDP growth is expected to return to a near-trend 2.5 per cent rate next year, as world economic growth slows and the impact of higher interest rates takes effect. Consequently, inflation is projected to ease back over the course of 2007, following an above-target peak this winter caused by rising food and energy costs.

Malcolm, as usual, has a pragmatic suggestion: let’s index-link the minimum wage to something with which the CBI definitely agrees. Say, board-room pay and bonuses. Sorry, there’s an error in that: the boardroom do not endure anything as menial as “pay” — it is “executive compensation”. And here’s Income Data Services on just that topic:

Top pay in the FTSE 100 reached a landmark this year with the average total earnings of lead executives breaching the £2 million ceiling. Never in the 15 years since we started monitoring directors’ remuneration have we found so many earning so much. Based on data drawn from our wider FTSE 350 survey, the Directors’ Pay Report 2005, we found that more than eight out of ten FTSE 100 lead executives earned over £1 million, with eight of these receiving total packages grossing more than £4 million.

The Labour Research Department is nothing like as sensationalist as that:

Chief executives of FTSE 100 companies received an average 10.8% pay rise last year – twice the rate of increase in average earnings for the whole economy.

And 10.8% on £5.35 takes the minimum wage to about £5.93: which is a bit better than the 25p added this year.

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Nixon and Satchelmouth’s stash:

The previous blog entry on Willie Nelson’s bust reminded Malcolm of a twice-heard tale. Humphrey Lyttelton, in his BBC radio programme, The Best of Jazz, some years ago, may have been its first audition. The pianist, Tommy Flanagan, is often cited as the source of the story, sometimes “as told to Miles Davis”. It has the smack of an urban folk-myth, but it’s worth the re-telling. Since all parties are now safely defunct, no great harm is done.

In July 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon went to Moscow. This was during one of the “thaws” in the Cold War, when an American National Exhibit was in Moscow. During this event the famous “kitchen debate” occurred between Nixon and Khrushchev.

On the stop-over in Paris, Nixon and his entourage encountered Louis Armstrong and his Band in the V.I.P. lounge at Orly. Armstrong’s European tour had wound up at l’Olympia; and he was now on a US State Department-sponsored Mission to Moscow. Nixon, allegedly, went somewhat giggly in the presence of the great Louis, and begged to be allowed to help. Armstrong graciously handed Nixon his instrument case, which Nixon proudly carried off the aircraft, and through the Soviet customs. Thus was Satchmo’s stash safely delivered under diplomatic cover.

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